Snatching at ideas

I don’t know how every writer out there writes, and I certainly won’t pretend to know.  If nothing else, I like to be honest about how little I know.  It keeps me humble and makes me look slightly amusing, two qualities I enjoy.

One thing I do know, however, is how the ideas bouncing around in my head turn into stories, and I felt that would make for a nice return from the holiday weekend.

Again, I’m not speaking for anybody but me.  So there’s that.

At any point in time, there are dozens of ideas bouncing around in my head.  Some are more fully formed than others, and some bounce around a lot faster, really grabbing my attention.  None of them, however, is a complete idea for a story.  They’re pieces, fragments.  Without something else to go with it, they’re useless.

Luckily, most days the ideas will find each other.  A little something from here will latch onto a little something from there, and the ideas turn into something new.  If that happens enough, I’ve got a story.  It’s tough to say when the ideas have turned into a story except to say it just feels “right.”  When that feeling hits, there’s nothing quite like it.

Sometimes, however, that feeling doesn’t hit at all.  There’s been one idea floating in my head for seven years now, but I haven’t been able to find something that fits with it and makes it a story… yet.

Deeper Waters from Broken Skin is a good example of things coming together the right way.  For years, I’d been sitting on the idea of a small rivier town that’s been flooded up to the second story.  I knew there was something in the water, but I didn’t really know what.  Only when that idea came together with the notion for white trash magician Charlie Crawdad and the memory of a town that had been filled in after a flood did the story start to take shape.  Without coming together, those ideas would have just been a bunch of parts.

So that’s how I do it.  Equal parts construction, magic, and dumb luck.  Kinda like everything else.

The Grieving Process

In the past year, I’ve lost both of my parents.

Summer of 2008, a day after I received my Just Like Hell comp copies, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer.  The doctors started him on chemo, and five weeks later, we learned the chemo wasn’t helping.  He was given two weeks to live, but he only lasted half that time.

He remained in high spirits, but a few days before he finally died, I saw him give up.  The two of us were eating chocolate sheet cake (his favorite) in the living room.  he took two bites, frowned, and grumbled, “I can’t taste anymore.”  He set the cake aside, closed his eyes, and I never saw him open them again.

I wasn’t supposed to like my dad. He was quiet, friendly, and easy-going, but he also moved to Florida a month before my high school graduation.  He barely ever called or wrote, and our conversations were stilted, clumsy affairs at best, and they reminded me of how clumsy and stilted I am in public, how terrified I am of people and how much I live in my own head.  I didn’t really get to know him until he moved to Texas a few years before his death. I’m very grateful for those years, when I finally realized that I loved my dad.

Almost a year to the day my father was diagnosed, doctors diagnosed my mother with liver cancer and gave her four-to-six months.  Again, they started chemo right away, and again, it was eventually determined that said chemo wasn’t working.  My mother lasted six days after she was told, catching pneumonia and falling victim to it.  Terrible, but better than the three more months of wasting away the doctors had given her.

I talked to my mother three times after she was diagnosed as terminal.  The first two were clumsy, stilted conversations that involved me trying to keep things light while I talked to this woman who was dying a minute at a time.  The third conversation took place after she’d been hospitalized on Saturday.  It was tough to understand her through her oxygen mask, but I got her to chuckle by telling her some stupid joke, and I told her twice that I loved her.  A few hours later, I’m told she closed her eyes and ever opened them again.

I love my mother, this over-protective woman who wished a nasty death on every girl whom refused to date me, this woman I never told about my new motorcycle because she would have spent hours crying about my imminent death.  Now, she’s gone, and I don’t have to worry about forgetting her birthday or calling every week so she won’t think I’m mad at her, and for some reason that just doesn’t feel real to me.
My mother and father are dead, and I don’t know how I feel.  There’s a mixture of sadness and relief, I think.  And fear.  And a desire to close myself off from everything else in the world.  I don’t want anybody else close to me to die.  I don’t want to experience that again.

I’m 32.  Neither of my parents made it past 72.  My life could be half-finished.

My oldest brother is in his fifties.

All I can think of is how desperately I want all of us to live.  Not survive, but live.

I’m going to spend the rest of the day writing and riding and holding Shawna, because those are the things I love to do.  In two days, I have to go to a funeral.  That’s two days in the future, though.  In two days, I can grieve.

Right now, I want to live.

Some Recent Reviews

Not of my stuff, but of some recent genre offerings that I enjoyed.  It’s October, so it’s the least I can do.

HELLBOUND HEARTS

This anthology is a tribute to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser mythos, which started back in his novella The Hellbound Heart.  I remember watching the first Hellraiser several years after its release.  I was a high school student at the time, and nowhere near smart or mature enough to understand the themes of pleasure and pain and how they might mingle.  Years later, I can see the Hellraiser mythos as the groundbreaking work it really is.

This anthology, chock full of short stories set in that mythos, is great.  The worst of the tales is solid, and several are absolutely tremendous.  The best tales in the anthology: Sarah langan’s “The Dark Materials Project,” Simon Clark’s “Our Lord of Quarters,” and the Chris Golden and Mike Mignola tale “Mechanisms,” flirt with the mythos without turning in the base tale of “Character finds puzzle box, solves it, cenobites arrive and torture ensues.”  More great tales come from Tim Lebbon, Nancy Kilpatrick, a short comic by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, and a story by Conrad Williams that was so good I went straight to the bookstore to find novels by the man.

TRICK R TREAT

Nowadays, the horror movie seems to be a lost art.  Filmmakers think shock and gore is the way to go, that audiences are jaded and want to be prodded rather than entertained.  Well, thank whoever your god is that Trick R Treat has finally been released.  Trick R Treat is a fun, deceptively dark tribute to the eighties anthology movies like Creepshow and Tales from the Dark Side.  Instead of being presented one story at a time, however, the tales here weave together, a character from one story brushing against a character from the next, passing the camera, in a sense.  The effect makes for great storytelling.

And the stories… The tales presented here aren’t gory or full of slashers.  They’re atmospheric tales that play off of Halloween lore in ways that are fun and frightening.  A friend of mine called it cute horror, but I’m not sure that fits.  It’s subtle horror, the kind you can have fun with and not feel the need to wash later.  Highly recommended!

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY

By now, everybody and their mother has written a review of this.  Don’t pay attention to them.  Just go see it and decide for yourself.  Personally, I loved it. It’s a movie that settles in slowly and wraps its fingers around you.  The last ten seconds aren’t so great, but the sense of dread building to those ten seconds is incredible.

Drawing Lines

The past year or so has taught me a lot.  Between the publication of Just Like Hell and Broken Skin, I received several offers for collaborations, appearances in anthologies, and magazine publications.  I’ve scored a contract for a novel and then been released from it.  I’ve written two novels that were both gutted when smarter writers pointed out terrible flaws.  I’ve made more and more friends within the business, and every single one of them had helpful advise to send my way.  At the same time, I’ve seen some ugly things, practices and philosophies that make me want to run screaming from this genre.

Instead of running, I drew some lines.  A career, even a teeny-tiny one like mine, isn’t worth a damn thing without some form of integrity.  Now, I don’t have a whole lot of integrity, but I figured it was best to lay out a few rules for myself.  Those rules (and their exceptions) are…

1) The story has to be one I want to tell.
Maybe this one is a no-brainer.  What I mean by it is no forcing a story if I’m not passionate about it.  If there’s an anthology paying pro rates (or even more importantly, less than pro rates) calling for “Terror at the Zoo” stories or something, I won’t force a story just to make a sale.  If I don’t have a story to tell, I won’t crap one out.

2) I don’t work for free.
In the past, I’ve done work for a few anthologies that were paid on a royalty-only basis.  I did it because I thought it would help gain me some wider recognition.  Well, three years later I still haven’t seen any royalties, and that tells me a little something about how many people picked up those books and now recognize my name.

Now, this one has some exceptions.  There’s the “For a friend” exception.  There’s also the “For a good cause” exception and the “Way too fun to pass up” exception.

3) The publisher matters.
I’m not excatly the most in-demand writer, and I’m fine with that.  I do, however, take the publisher of any potential project into account.  Do they have good distribution?  Have they screwed writers in the past?  Do they have a history of good production values?  All of these things need to be taken into account, as I’ll only be taken as seriously as a publisher allows me to be.

4) I will not beg for awards.
Last year, Just Like Hell racked up enough recommendations to make the Stoker long list for short fiction (yeah, that’s a weird sentence).  My great source of pride lies in the fact that I didn’t trade recommendations with any authors, an offer I received more than once or twice.  Every rec came from somebody who read the book and liked it.

In the past week, I’ve seen a few people make offers of free books or pdf copies to voting members of the HWA.  Now I did something similar last year, when there was a big thread of folks doing it on Shocklines.  All I received was a single offer to trade recommendations, and the whole thing just made me feel like a whore.  Well, that’s not going to happen again.  If something I write ever makes the final Stoker ballot or wins (hell, that goes for any award) it won’t be because of my prodding.  Otherwise, it’s not really an award, but a favor.

So that’s what I have right now, my four guidelines for a better career.  Maybe they’ll lead me right.  Time will tell.

Sight Seeing: A Dangerous Game

Gather ’round, ladies and gents, boys and girls.  I’d like to tell you a story of bravery and daring do.  A tale of courage and determination in the face of certain death, where the guy gets the girl and all is set right in the universe.

Sadly, I don’t have such a story, so you have to settle for hearing about how I hurt myself sight seeing.

See, last week Shawna and I took a short trip to Washington, DC.  Shawna had never seen our nation’s capital, and I’d only been once on a seventh grade field trip.  Naturally, Shawna wanted to see the sights, and so did I.  So we took the Metro into town (and I spent a lot of time thinking to myself I think I killed a supermutant in Fallout 3 right over there), and soon we were in line for the National Archives.

Little did I know this would be the most relaxing part of the day.

After we left the Archives, we walked up to the Capitol and snapped a few pictures.  Then, we started down the mall.  After brief stops in the Natural History and American History Museums, we made out way to the Washington Monument for more picture-snapping.  From there it was on to the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, Korean Memorial, and three different attempts to locate a path to the Jefferson Memorial (we eventually decided to just snap pictures from a bridge).

But we weren’t done yet.  Not by a long shot.  After cooling down at the World War II Memorial, we made the walk up to the White House and then over to Old Ebbitt Grill for lunch.  After eating a great chicken sandwich, I stood to continue our trip.

That’s when I noticed my knee.

There was a slight ache in my left knee.  Nothing major, and certainly not as painful as my feet.  As we made our way to the Air and Space Museum, however, it slowly grew worse.  I’m not sure if Shawna noticed my more frequent stops to take pictures, but I’m glad she didn’t object.

By the time we made our way through the American Art Museum (which is so amazing I wish I’d had another day to check it out), I was hobbling back to the Metro station.  That night, I could barely walk steps, and sleeping was an exercise in futility.  My knee felt like it was on fire, and if I placed my hand on it while bending and flexing, I could feel all kinds of scraping and popping.

After flying home, I had to sit down and take breaks while leaving the airport.  As painful as it was, it was also embarrassing.  So few people injure themselves by walking.  It figures that I’d be one of the lucky few.

Three days and half a tube of Icy Hot later, I’m feeling much better.  The knee barely hurts at all today.  Who knows, maybe it’ll all go back to normal. 

Until the next time I go sight seeing.

Ah, who am I kidding.  Next time, I’m just gonna buy a goddamn postcard.

An Accidental Crime

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was having a very strange Monday.  A few folks asked why, but I didn’t really give any details.  I was waiting for things to quiet down so I’d have time to write about it.

Well friends, that time has arrived.  Let me tell you how I accidentally aided and abetted a hit and run.

It started around five o’clock.  Shawna and I had chili dogs in the making, and I was looking forward to eating various indescribable parts of several animals.  We were minutes away from dinner, so of course the doorbell rang.  Once I managed to wrestle the dogs (Greta and Boris, not the hot dogs) into the garage, I opened the door.

It was our neighbor.  Now, I didn’t really know our neighbors at the time.  A woman and her teenage son had moved in a few weeks before.  They appeared nice enough, letting us search through their backyard when Boris the Wonder Lab somehow knocked a ball over there with his nose.

Anyway, our new neighbor needed help.  She told me her son had just been involved in a car accident about a mile away, and she wanted to know if I could drive her to the scene.

“Sure,” I said.  I like to be helpful, and sometimes even the scent of chili dogs can’t keep me from a good deed.  A moment later, I had my keys and we both climbed into my non-air conditioned hunk of junk.

My neighbor jumped on her cellphone.  What follows is a transcript:

“Hey.  Hey!  HEEEEY!  ANSWER ME, MOTHERFUCKER!  WHERE THE FUCK ARE YOU?  HEEEEEEEEY!”

Luckily, it didn’t take long to reach the spot where her son had wrecked.  Of course, that’s where the trouble really started.

We pulled to a stop behind a pickup truck that had been towing a lawn service trailer.  Both truck and trailer sat twisted in the intersection.  I couldn’t see my neighbor’s car.

“You want me to wait?” I asked.

“Yeah,” and she climbed out of the car.

Suddenly the air was full of screams and curses.  I decided I should check this out, so I climbed out of the car and followed the trail of “Bitches” and “Motherfuckers.”

I rounded the truck and saw my neighbor’s car sitting there with the front corner panel knocked in.  Compared to the pickup, it had made out pretty well.  The truck’s side was smashed in, the transmission lying in the street.  The trailer had also been wrecked, so when I heard my neighbor’s son say, “I was only doing thirty,” I suspected he was being less than truthful.

So I saw my neighbor’s son standing with his two friends.  I saw the two lawn workers standing next to him and trying to get his insurance information.

And then I saw my neighbor climb behind the wheel of her car and take off.

To be fair, she didn’t just take off.  She first hurled a string of insults at anybody within shouting distance and then cut off another driver before pausing to scream, “BITCH, YOU SEE ME DRIVING HERE!”  Then she took off.

Her son then turned to me.  “Can you give me a ride home?”

“We should probably wait.”

Around that time, the owner of the lawn service showed up, and I got to hear all the details of this wreck.  When he asked where the car that did the actual wrecking might be, the kid gave his mom a call.  As he told her she needed to bring the car back, I heard a string of curses exit the phone.

The kid handed the phone to the lawn service owner.  I couldn’t much tell what she was saying, as most of it came out as an angry garble, but his words were easy enough to understand.  There were sentences like, “You don’t need to raise your voice at me,” and, “I’m not a legal scholar, but at the very least I need your insurance information.”  Eventually, he handed the phone back to my neighbor’s son, who listened for a moment and then said, “Okay,” before hanging up the phone…

…and sneaking away.

At least, I think he snuck away.  I’m not sure, because he was sneaky.  Nobody really noticed the guy was gone until the cops showed.  That meant I got to spend the time I could have spent stuffing my face with chili dogs talking to the police and explaining no, I don’t know my neighbor’s name or where her son go to school.  No, I don’t know their phone number.  Really, I don’t know a thing about them except that they started renting the house next to mine two weeks ago.

Now, two or three weeks later, I still don’t know a thing about my neighbors.  Because they haven’t returned.  If they’re back in that house, they’re very sneaky about it.  Of course, I know at least one of them can be sneaky.

On the bright side, Shawna kept the chili dogs warm until I got home.

So that was my Monday.  Ain’t they grand?

Summer Watchin’

You may be interested in knowing right off the bat that this is not an entry about stalking Summer Glau.  Sorry if I’ve disappointed you.

No, I’m talking about summer TV, that blessed thing that keeps me frmo going outside and burning my bald scalp.

Now, this year’s summer watchin’ is augmented by the extended RESCUE ME season.  After a lackluster season four (saved by the wonderful final scene), Leary and company are back and firing on all cylinders with stories that are some of the best the series has produced. I’m not sure how much of the season is left, but I hope it lasts a while longer.

Bravo will be delivering the one-two punch of TOP CHEF MASTERS and PROJECT RUNWAY.  I don’t much care for reality TV, but these competitions full of contestants that are truly talented individuals really get me going.  I do have some concern that TOP CHEF MASTERS will devalue the regular TOP CHEF, but I’ll still tune in to see if celeb chefs are just as crazy as their everyday counterparts.

Of course, both of those reality competitions are just pretenders to the SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE throne.  This is my third year watching this show I’ve just fallen in love with.  There’s something about watching incredibly talented dancers chace their dreams (without having to haul around retired sports stars or soap opera actors) that fills me with wonder.  During last night’s final tryout round in Las Vegas, pint-sized Tokyo popper Nobuya collapsed into tears, thanking his teachers, when he made it through a round of ballroom.  It was just amazing, and I completely fell in love with the guy then and there. 

Yeah, I probably lose horror writer cred for watching that show.  In my defense, I’ll just say I don’t need to defend myself.

So, what’s everybody else watching during the summer months?

The War of Ideas

First off, don’t worry.  This isn’t a political screed or any such nonsense.  As I’ve said before and will no doubt say again, I don’t really have the time for that.

No, this here entry is about another War of Ideas.  It’s about the battle that happens in a writer’s head once they’ve written The End at the bottom of one page and now have a brand spankin’ new blank page to fill with words.  Whenever I reach that point, a battle breaks out in my head as all the ideas for the next story race to the front and try to get to my fingers and from there to the keyboard.  Sometimes it’s a small skirmish, and other times it’s like The Big One going on in my cranium.

Maybe it doesn’t happen to every writer.  Maybe I’m the one with the messed up skull squishins full of fighting ideas.  I like to think I’m not alone, though.

So who wins the battle?  How do you choose what the next story will be?  And what happens to the other idas?

Well, I like to think the really great ideas refuse to do anything but win.  I could be wrong.  I really want to believe, however, that the strongest glimmers of story stand up and make themselves known.  They refuse to wait.  The other ideas?  If they’re any good, they’ll stick around.  I’ve had one idea for a book that’s been stuck in my skull for five years.  it won’t go away.  I just need it to come together a little more and jump to the front of my brain.

Until then, the war continues.

A Stew of Thoughts

Lots of stuff going on in my head today.  Thoughts bubble and brew and churn, and I just get to sit here hoping to snatch one or two of them and make them stand still.

Broken Skin is selling very well so far.  After three days, the book has already surpassed my sales expectations.  This makes me ecstatic.  You still have until May 1st to reserve a copy at Thunderstorm Books or Horror Mall, but why would you want to wait?

This weekend I get to fly out to San Diego for my best friend’s wedding.  I’ve known the guy since the fifth grade, and I’m ridiculously happy for him.  Weddings are funny.  They make me want to get married, but a few days later I remember that I’m pretty anti-marriage and Shawna is ridiculously anti-marriage.

Trying with every fiber of my being to be patient.  I write compuslively, but I need to spend more time honing stories to their finest edge.  Emotion is great, but it’s useless without craft.

Looks like I sold another novelette.  Too soon to say anything concrete, but it looks like it may be available about the same time Broken Skin gets mailed out.

Very nostalgic lately.  Doesn’t matter if it’s drinking Hot Damn at Bill Vorbroker’s campsite or walking Short Vine in Cincinnati while waiting for the Hum show at Sudsy Malone’s.  I want a number three combo from Gold Star Chili and to sit on the banks of the Ohio River with the sun on my face.  I want to walk through the woods and sing songs at the top of my lungs.

I need to sit down and get some writing done.  Ideas are eating up my brain like a fire eats dry leaves.

Hookers, Pizza, and Idiots Like Me

No new hint today.  You’ll have to wait until tomorrow for that.  Instead, today I’ll give you another in a long series of essays I like to call, “That Is Fucking Stupid.”

Today’s Subject: Take and Bake Pizza.

For months now, friends have been telling me I have to try this place called Papa Murphy’s.  I’ve heard everything from “Best Pizza Chain Six Years Running!” to “So tasty you’ll think God tongue kissed you!”  Now, I remained skeptical.  After all, this is a pizza chain that sells you raw pizzas and makes you go cook them your own damn self.  No matter how you slice it (heh), that sounds like a dumb idea to me.

However, don’t let it be said I won’t try something once (unless that something is stabbing myself in the eye).  So I decided to give Papa Murphy’s a shot.

I walk in the empty (remember that part, because it’s important) take out place around five-thirty Saturday.  I spend a few minutes acquaiting myself with the menu, and then I place an order for a large five meat pizza.

The helpful and chipper girl at the register rings me up. “That’ll be $12.99.”

Blink.  Blink, blink.

Look, I know I’m taking this pizza home and cooking it myself.  At this point, I’m fine with the fact.  I still have to pay $13 for it, though?  Isn’t that like paying a hooker a few hundred bucks so you can take matters into your own hands?  A large meat pizza at just about anyplace else is only a few bucks more.  And they’ll cook the damn thing for ya.  And a meat pizza from your grocer’s freezer is a whole lot less.

But I promised I would try this stuff, so I smile and pay.

And wait.

After a moment, chipper register girl tells me I can have a seat while my pizza is assembled.  What?  Seriously?  You’re supposed to be getting ready for a dinner rush, I can see four other employees milling around in the back, and you don’t have one of your specialty pizzas ready to go?  I mean, I can see a cooler behind you, and I can see pizzas in it.

So I sit. And I wait. For ten minutes. I mentioned I was their only customer, right?

This is where I start having problems.  See, I worked in a pizza place for several years, so I know it takes a large pizza eight minutes to travel through a pizza oven.  Add on the two minutes it should take to assemble a pizza for the only customer you have, and you’ve reached your ten minutes.  Ten minutes for slapping sauce, cheese, and meat onto dough is not acceptable.  A stoned chimp could build a pizza faster.

So after ten minutes I’ll never get back, chipper register girl wraps my pizza and goes over the baking instructions with me.  I smile and nod until she gets to the bake time.  She says, “Seventeen to twenty minutes,” and I bite back the urge to scream in her smiling face.  By now I’m positive I’ve let myself be hoodwinked.  Somewhere, my friends are laughing their asses off at how they tricked me into overpaying for a pizza I could have made myself.

So I went home and cooked the pizza, and it tasted okay.  Not amazing, not horrible.  Okay.  For context, imagine I payed a so-so looking hooker $400 and then she watched TV while I was forced to pleasure myself.  I’m sure there are better ways to spend the money.

So, no.  I won’t be returning to Papa Murphy’s anytime soon.  I think next time I’ll just grab some ingredients and make my own pizza.